J. Richard Gentry Ph.D.

Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers

Digital Media and the Future of Beginning Reading: Brilliant Babies Reading Words!

New reading pioneers creating brilliant baby readers.

Posted Mar 28, 2011

Baby Reader
Do babies have brain-reading capacity between the critical brain-building years from birth to age four that is creating a paradigm shift in the world of beginning reading? Does baby + parent + computer + fun = the perfect mix for baby reading? Eighty per cent of American children five years of age and under use the Internet on a weekly basis. Something new is happening.

Thousands of parents world-wide are turning to digital media for baby reading and they are posting their brilliant baby readers on YouTube. Parents are using soft-ware to cuddle up with baby in front of the computer for joint media co-viewing engagements playing word reading and word learning games or delighting in multi-sensory story reading. No one is recommending that we get rid of books or play, but digital baby/toddler reading is efficient, fun, and it's here.

Could Baby Reading Be Easier than Learning to Read at Age Six? Is Baby Reading Even Plausible?

The answer to both questions is "yes." At six years of age learning to read is work--from birth to age three, learning to read is play. You might think baby/toddler reading is implausible if you listen to some of the experts. Is there an academic blind spot causing them to ridicule baby/toddler reading just like the experts who said the earth was flat, the Sun orbited Earth, and the continents didn't drift? I find too many experts stuck in a left-brain model of formal reading instruction which has too many requirements for babies and toddlers such as sitting still and following adult-like reasoning or worry about phonemic awareness. Too many experts talk about teaching the alphabet first--now that's pretty abstract for the typical baby--and then prescribe phonics. Some experts spew out arguments calling baby word-reading mere memorization or "the paired associate learning one would associate with parrots." They declare that toddler phonics is taboo. Then there's all that talk about myelination. It's true that the requirements of formal beginning reading instruction are inappropriate for babies, toddlers or even many 4- and 5-year-olds. Lagging frontal lobe development--a plausible developmental requirement for formal reading instruction--may be insufficient until age six. That's why some experts recommend waiting until ages six and seven for reading instruction. But what if it's harder for 6-year-olds to learn to read after they have lost certain baby-brain capacities? What if a new computer-based, word-play model is perfectly suited to babies--a model based on babies having fun interacting with their parents on the computer along with books?

Baby Capacities for Beginning Reading

Here's what you already know:

  • Babies love your attention.
  • Babies love to learn.
  • Babies and toddlers have special capacities for multi-language learning before age four.
  • Babies have natural curiosity.
  • Babies delight in novelty and they are good at recognition.

Here are some additional baby facts:

  • Babies and toddlers are fast learners.
  • Babies are good at perceiving patterns.
  • Babies link sounds and meaning as early as nine months of age.
  • Babies have special brain capacity for imitation.
  • Babies respond well to multi-sensory presentation (Think of "This Little Piggy Went to the Market:"It's--visual--auditory--tactile--social-emotional--and fun.).
  • Physical contact is important to baby growth and development so joint media engagement (parent and child) is de rigueur.
  • Babies and toddlers are good at learning words.

In What's Going on in There: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, neuroscientist Dr. Lise Eliot reports that 8-month-old babies can recognize specific words up to two weeks after hearing them read repeatedly from a storybook. She says that during the second year of life toddlers have a vocabulary spurt and may learn on average 8 words a day or 200 words a month. She even reports that recognition memory and novelty preference in 2- to 8- month-olds predicts intelligence measured by IQ tests in 2- to 8-year-olds. Throughout history and up to this day there are numerous reports of early baby reading. One of my favorites is the Winifred Stoner story whose 1914 book tells how she taught her daughter to read by 16 months of age through reading aloud and word games without formal lessons. All four of her friends who tried her method taught their children to read before age three. Then there's the educator Lewis Terman who wrote in 1925 about a 25-month-old who read over 700 words and could decode new material at an end of first grade level (reported in How to Teach Your Baby to Read by Glenn and Janet Doman). In the last half of the 20th century, Glenn Doman and the Japanese education professor Makoto Shichida caught the wave. Today, baby/toddler reading pioneers such as Robert Titzer (Your Baby Can Read), Mike Wood (LeapFrog), KL Wong (BrillKids), and Larry Sanger (WatchKnow), whose compelling personal "baby reader stories" are all posted on the Internet (find them all on Google), are promoting short, joint media engagements with parents and toddlers using fast flash and multisensory routines often enhanced by digital media. Each of these baby reading pioneers loved reading aloud to their children in addition to bonding and having fun with words.

Let Babies Be Babies! Why Use Computers?

Computers are fun for little kids. When used properly computers are good teachers. They are good at novelty and superb at multi-sensory presentation. A just-released report found that nearly 80% of American children five and under use the Internet on a weekly basis, and very young children are increasingly consuming all types of digital media--in many cases more than one type at once.  
"Always Connected: The New Digital Habits of Young Children" also reports that children under 1 spend about 45 minutes a day using screen media; 2s and 3s are spending almost two hours a day (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2006). Are digital media good or bad for kids? It probably depends on common sense, how much time one spends, the content, and how it is used.

If you try digital media with your baby or toddler, here are my tips:

  • Make it a game.
  • Stop when it's not fun.
  • Play the game in short durations.
  • Be enthusiastic.
  • Keep it balanced with book reading and play.

What Does the Research Say About Baby/Toddler Readers?

Not much, because the research on 2- and 3-year-old readers hasn't been done. Most of the experts who claim that babies can't read have stepped outside their own research base. Dr. Timothy Shanahan who chaired the National Early Literacy Panel which reviewed research on preschoolers and kindergartners reported the following on his website:

There are very few studies of younger children (none of 2-year-olds, and only a handful with 3-year-olds). Generally, we found that the children younger than 5 (meaning the 3s and 4s) who did well with decoding, also did well with later reading (both decoding and comprehension). It is clearly valuable to get them started early, but no info on the 2s.

Do Baby/Toddler Readers Do Better Later in Life?

We don't know for sure because no one ever did the research, but it is certain that baby/toddler readers aren't among the four out of ten 8-year-olds in America who can't read proficiently. It also seems that one of the most important benefits is baby-parent bonding, which bodes well for later life. In a study entitled "Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later," the University of California Berkeley researcher Dr. Ann Cunningham and Dr. Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto found that first-grade reading ability was a strong predictor 10 years later for reading comprehension, vocabulary, and general knowledge in the first graders they tracked up through 11th grade. They concluded "Early success at reading acquisition is one of the keys that unlocks a lifetime of reading habits." (Developmental Psychology 1997, Vol. 33, No. 6, 934-945) My own prediction is that 3- and 4-year-olds with first grade reading ability (or the higher levels often seen with early readers) might achieve similar positive results later in life. Why teach your baby to read? They may do better later in life if you do, but teach them mainly because babies enjoy it and you will too!

Learning More about the World of Baby/Toddler Reading

Today, there are more and more resources available for those interested in teaching their baby or toddler to read. My favorite is BrillKids.com, which not only provides a wealth of information about early learning, but also connects thousands of like-minded parents from all over the world in a forum for discussion and sharing of incredible content. Unlike some others, they embrace technology to the fullest by using the power of the computer and the Internet to make the process more fun for the child, and easier for parents. They have also made available a sponsorship program to make their Little Reader program available to children whose parents can't afford it.

Raising Confident Readers
(Dr. Gentry is the author of  Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on Amazon.com. Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)


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